Amurph11’s #CBR4 Holiday Gift Guide: Your Loveable Asshole of an Ex-Boyfriend (Review #41, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby)
*For those that missed it, I will be reviewing books for the month of December as part of a holiday gift guide series. Please enjoy my recommendation for the most recent entry: that endearing douchebag you used to date and still hang out with sometimes.
I have this friend that I’ve known since college. You might call him an ex, if it weren’t for the fact that we were both too immature to actually date, preferring instead to vest all kinds of quasi-romantic indignities on each other under the auspices of friendship. Having put all that behind us, now we’re just buds who just tell each other about the romantic indignities we vest on other people. And in that spirit, we have this tradition: every once in a while, I get a text message from him comprised simply of a quote from High Fidelity, something like this:
“It would be nice to think that as I’ve got older times have changed, relationships have become more sophisticated, females less cruel, skins thicker, reactions sharper, instincts more developed. But there still seems to be an element of that evening in everything that happened to me since; all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one.”
This usually serves as a sign that either he’s just broken up with someone, or that a break-up is in the offing. This was particularly fun when he dated a girl named Laura (whose name is shared by the main ex-girlfriend of High Fidelity’s Rob), but that’s beside the point. The point is High Fidelity the movie is his coping method—and mine, for that matter. This is because, in a pinch, High Fidelity the movie is the best cure for broken hearts, battered pride, and bruised ego. If you’ve got some time to mope, though, the book is even better. Rob Fleming is the voice of a generation, a Gen-X misanthrope who bumbled his way into a deadbeat career and a series of nowhere relationships. Rob has no idea what he wants from his own life or from the women around him.
High Fidelity is a book comprised about lists, which makes it very accessible for the endearing asshole in your life. Rob Fleming’s organizes his life by lists: lists of favorite side one track ones, lists of top five jobs if money and time were no object, and of course, the list of all time, top five break-ups: Alison Ashmore, Penny Hardwick, Sara Kendrew, Jackie Alden, and Charlie Nicholson. And, lest we forget, the late-breaking number one with a bullet (though he doesn’t admit it until halfway through the book, just out of spite): his most recent girlfriend, Laura.
After his breakup with Laura and the end of what was his most grown-up relationship yet, Rob spirals into the detritus of his past break-ups. Spurred on by a profoundly selfish desire to plumb the depths of his disappointment with women, he contacts each of his old girlfriends to figure out why they left him. The answer, in most cases, is that Rob usually had it coming. In three examples, it was a simple matter of his expectations not coming anywhere close to reality (think Tom in 500 Days of Summer). In the other two, he was just acting like an dick. And yet somehow, he sees himself as an innocent victim in every single one. His conversations with his past girlfriends do little to rectify this; in the case of Penny Hardwick, who reminds him that he dumped her because she wouldn’t sleep with him, his response is not remorse but barely disguised glee that he was the one that did the dumping. See, he had forgotten this, because Rob uses his breakups not as a way to take stock of himself and what he wants out of life, but instead to putter around in the House That Self-Pity Built until someone pays adequate attention to him. If this makes him sound annoying or unlikable, the reality is quite the opposite; Rob Fleming is incredibly likable, mostly because he is so recognizable. Sure, he’s an asshole, but he’s a self-aware asshole with semi-decent intentions. Don’t we all have one of those in our lives?
Eventually, Rob’s self-absorption is interrupted by tragedy—not his own, of course. There are very few opportunities for true hardship in Rob’s life, because he rarely risks himself enough to connect to anything or anybody that has the capacity to love him back. Nonetheless, tragedy strikes close enough to home to make him question his lifestyle choices, and he responds by attempting, in fits and starts, to grow up a little. Perhaps the most refreshingly authentic part of High Fidelity, however, is that Nick Hornby refuses to take the easy way out and redeem him completely. Though Rob does eventually grow up, the problems that beset him never really go away: he still finds himself attracted to the new, mysterious girl; he still occasionally regresses into whiny jerkdom; he still self-sabotages his career. But he learns—as we all do, if we’re lucky—to work around these things.
There is a blurb from Details that sums the book’s value up perfectly: “Keep this book away from your girlfriend—it contains too many of your secrets to let it fall into the wrong hands.” Even if the book weren’t such a damn joy to read, the insights on the male psyche contained in Rob’s slow, begrudging journey toward self-realization would be well worth the price of admission. But the best use of the $12 it costs in paperback would be to buy it for your ex-boyfriend. You know the one I’m talking about: the one who didn’t quite make it out of adolescence unscathed, who is convinced that he’s one of the Nice Guys even when he’s acting like an asshole, the one who is profoundly sensitive when it comes to slights against his person and profoundly insensitive when it comes to absolutely anyone else, but above all the one who in spite of everything else is a genuinely good-hearted dude in need of a little guidance. Buy him this book. And when he inevitably calls you to whine over another break-up, buy him the movie, too.